“McMansions are the largest physical boomer legacy soon inherited by their children”

A Connecticut architect considers the McMansion legacy left by a generation of homeowners and builders:

Skyscrapers are the image of New York. The White House is more America than a home. And McMansions have become a punchline. When I sought to find land in 1982, a broker pushed a building lot in a McMansion development, pushing its allure by flatly asserting, “We’re talking about some seriously beautiful homes here.”…

Time has not been kind to we boomers. We basically tanked the entire world’s economy with “irrational exuberance” that found its most publicly grotesque distortion in those McMansions. Make no mistake millions of less-than-McMansions had more distortional impact on the credit markets than the hundreds of thousands of McMansion, let alone the one-off attempts by individuals who try to buy social legitimacy by building large homes — the real mansions…

McMansions are the largest physical boomer legacy soon inherited by their children, the millennials, who have had the worst economic birthing since the Great Depression. Kate Wagner was barely in her 20s when she called out the final fruits of 40 years of serial housing booms that afflicted America. But the impact of in-your-face domestic chest-beating is especially present in Connecticut, which realtor.com trumpeted as having the “metro” with the third most McMansions in the country. And that impact was doubled down by the added insult of unending instant “tear-downs” of those homes built in the previous generation in the tight Northeast.

As an architect I have remade any number of these instantly dated ego vehicles. We have also revived any number of raised ranches, garrison colonials and Capes. Often those homes need strategic expansion. But with McMansions, removal of the offending detail and pretense is often the first remediation.

I like the idea that a social group – here the emphasis is on Baby Boomers – can leave a physical legacy for later members of the same society. People do not just pass down values, norms, and behaviors; they also leave a physical landscape and places that they have made and shaped. Even though we do not focus much on this in the United States, these places shape us and also provide inertia for what future residents will experience. McMansions have the potential to influence millions of lives even as the original designers, builders, and residents may no longer be present.

At the same time, I wonder how obvious the excesses of the McMansion were while they were being constructed in large numbers. It is relatively easy today to look at them with disdain or wonder at what prompted them. A blog like McMansion Hell has the benefits of hindsight as well as new eyes from a younger resident from a different generation. Did this architect call out McMansions back in the 1990s when wealthy Connecticut communities built them in large numbers? My own research suggests the tide starts to turn against McMansions in the early to mid 2000s as consistent critiques of their architecture and consumption arise as well as there are enough of them in communities across the United States to see them as a single phenomenon.

Going forward, I don’t think McMansions will disappear. There is plenty of money to be made in McMansions compared to building smaller housing units. It is not clear that all millennials or future homebuyers will see them as homes to be avoided. And many of the McMansions critics say are poorly built and designed will last for decades.

Census 2020 looking to go online

Reaching younger Americans is part of the reason plans are underway to move parts of the decennial 2020 census online:

Millennials (born from 1981 to 1996) and Generation Z (born after 1996) account for about 35 percent of the approximate 325 million people in the U.S., according to estimates, and census officials say their traditional means of outreach — mail-in questionnaires, landline phone calls and door-to-door surveys — are failing to connect with this significant segment of the population.

The Census Bureau plans to conduct its first-ever online headcount, which it predicts will generate 60 percent of the total responses for 2020…

However, social scientists suggest that millennials and Generation Z could have a hard time appreciating the importance of the census, having grown up amid a distorted media landscape of instant online gratification, “fake news” and a culture of likes on social networks…

Last month, census communications chief Burton Reist was quoted as saying endorsements from celebrities such as LeBron James are being considered. He described a hypothetical situation in which the NBA superstar urges young people during halftime to pull out their cellphones and “answer the census.”

Moving data collection online would seem to offer a lot in terms of lower costs and easier data tabulation. But, as the article suggests, it brings along its own issues such as cutting through the online clutter and working with celebrities to pitch the online data collection.

On one hand, this might lead to the conclusion that it is still difficult to use web surveys to collect information on a broad scale. Unless a research company has a panel of possible participants in a recruited and relatively representative panel, reaching the broader public on a voluntary basis is hard.

On the other hand, perhaps this should be taken as a good sign: the Census Bureau clearly indicates their data collection has to match what people actually use. Going door to door may not be feasible going forward. If people are online or using devices for hours a day, online surveys might be more attractive.

Almost regardless of how this turns out in the 2020 count, it will be an interesting experiment to watch. What will the online response rate be? How will the Census Bureau have to go about advertising online data entry?

“Millennials may (or may not) have killed” starter homes

A list of items millennials may have affected begins with starter homes:

Statistically, the generation that coined the phrase “adulting” has put it off longer than previous generations (see marriage, kids, home ownership). According to Zillow, millennials are currently the largest group of homebuyers, but CEO Spencer Rascoff notes that “starter home” inventory is limited, forcing millennials to rent until they can afford the bigger, more expensive crop of houses. On the bright side, chances are their Pinterest and DIY skills have their rentals looking lovely.

Many of the underlying economic factors limiting the number of and access to starter homes is out of the hands of millennials. Additionally, Americans as a whole are conditioned and pushed purchase and live in larger homes.

Theoretically, millennials could push back more on the delayed adulthood that is now common – but that has its own confluence of factors pushing adults toward achieving adult milestones later.

In the long run, it appears millennials still want to buy homes and are interested in a suburban life. However, this might look different: the process will be pushed back, homeowners may own fewer homes, and the homes themselves could be larger and have specific features. There will still be many smaller homes in the United States but they may require a good amount of renovation, may be fairly pricey to acquire, and Baby Boomers may be in them for a while. The homeownership process does not have to look the same in the future and there might even be some positive twists along the way even as it can be difficult to move away from established patterns.

Chicago neighborhoods lead the way in percentage and absolute numbers of millennials

Chicago continues to be a draw for young adults:

According to U.S. Census population estimates, 73 percent of West Loop residents (6,800 people) are millennials. California-based apartment search website RENTCafe.com analyzed the data, ranking ZIP codes in the country’s 30 largest U.S. cities. And the West Loop — ZIP code 60661 — is home to a higher percentage of people born between 1977 and 1996 than any other in the country, according to their analysis.

But the trendy downtown-adjacent neighborhood doesn’t come close to several other Chicago areas in terms of sheer numbers. Lakeview, Logan Square, Irving Park, Lincoln Park, Chicago Lawn, Pilsen and Lincoln Square — each home to more than 30,000 millennials — all rank among the top 20 ZIP codes in the nation with the largest millennial population, according to RENTCafe.

While the emphasis in the rest of the article is on the excitement in such neighborhoods, I want to hold the data up to two larger trends.

These figures may suggest Chicago continues to draw young adults from throughout the Midwest. From an area roughly from Detroit to Omaha, Minneapolis to St. Louis, Chicago pulls in a lot of residents to the leading city in the middle of the country. This is happening even as the US population continues to shift to the South and West.

Furthermore, these high percentages of millennials may seem out of place considering Chicago’s population loss in recent years. On one hand, the city as a whole is struggling to retain residents. On the other hand, a good number of millennials want to move to and live in Chicago. The long-term trick may be for the city to figure how to keep these millennials in the city even as millennials on the whole might prefer the suburbs later in life.

Even with all of its issues, Chicago is still a desirable place to live, particularly for millennials. These neighborhoods with younger adults could prove very important to helping the city retain its status as a leading global city.

The big Baby Boomer house does not necessarily equal a Mcmansion

A recent analysis on Realtor.com uses the term McMansion as shorthand for a large house owned by a Baby Boomer. Here is the crux of the argument regarding the habits of millennials:

“They’ll buy a smaller house with fancier amenities, close to town, rather than chase square footage,” Dorsey says.

This argument has been made for several years now: millennials are willing to live in smaller homes but desire certain amenities. But, is every big house a McMansion? No, no, no – a minority of American homes are over 3,000 square feet but not all of them are McMansions. Even if they meet the size requirement, they may not be teardowns, suffer architecturally, or exist in lonely suburban communities or all house crass consumers or the nouveau riche. And do all Baby Boomers live in McMansions? Of course not. There may be broad patterns at play here – Baby Boomers have plenty of houses to sell, millennials may not want all of those particular homes – but using loaded terms like McMansions or suggesting incompatibility across entire generations may be going too far.

Side note: this Baby Boomers vs. millennials in the housing market is gaining steam across media sources. How will the Boomers sell all of their houses? (See earlier posts here and here.) What do millennials want in houses and communities? (See earlier posts here and here.)

How McMansions affect the children who grew up in them

The founder of the Tumblr McMansion Hell was asked about the effect of McMansions on younger generations:

Returning back to our earlier conversation about why your Tumblr seems to especially be popular among young people, it would seem that not only are young people rejecting their parents’ values but they’re also coming of age during a time that has other trends affecting the decline of McMansions. For instance people are choosing to remain in cities rather than move to suburbs, they’re prioritizing the quality of possessions versus the quantity, there’s a focus on minimalism and everyone’s obsessed with Marie Kondo and de-cluttering. What do you think about all of this?

I think that what it really boils down to is the previous generation — the McMansion buyers — [placed an emphasis] on owning and having assets and this [younger] generation is now more interested in having experiences. Having the experience of community by living in the city, having the experience of having a house that’s well-crafted. This is also the first generation that really grew up with the concept of global warming and we have more of an urgency because our lives are going to be impacted by it. For a lot of young people that grew up in the suburbs, once you reached adolescence, there was a quality of life that was really impacted by the isolation of the suburbs and I think that has played a huge role as to why the younger generation is rejecting this notion of ‘the big house’ and this notion of always being in the car.

There are a number of broad assumptions made here on both sides – interviewer and interviewee – and how they may be affected by McMansions. It is still not entirely clear that younger Americans don’t want to own homes in the suburbs or that consumerism has abated. Younger Americans do seem to have less interest in driving – as evidenced by delayed drivers licenses – though McMansions aren’t only located in exurbs. Some of this will take time to sort out as there have also been large scale economic events that have had some effect.

Among those who discuss McMansions, you would be hard pressed to find many who would argue McMansions are good for children. The opinion above is that children who grew up in such homes will react in certain ways to their negative effects. Yet, how many people reject the general values and norms of their parents? Americans often celebrate this ideal – teenagers should have room to explore, adults should be able to make their own choices and be their own person – but there is often more continuity in society than we suspect. Social change can indeed take place across generations but not all of life necessarily changes.

I can see it now: let’s replace the term Millennials with the McMansion generation. While most people didn’t grow up in such homes, it would fit certain narratives…

Baby Boomers contributing to slow real estate market

Experts suggest the inaction of Baby Boomers is adding to a slow real estate market:

Boomers are part of a “clogging up [of] the whole chain of home sales,” Sean Becketti, chief economist of giant mortgage investor Freddie Mac, told me last week.

“They appear to be staying in the family home longer than previous generations,” Becketti wrote in a new outlook report, “and the imbalance between housing demand and supply continues to boost prices.”

Of course, boomers’ behavior has had outsize effects on the national economy for decades. In real estate, their footprint is enormous. Becketti cites the Federal Reserve’s most recent Survey of Consumer Finances, which estimated in 2013 that households led by people age 55 and older controlled two-thirds of all home equity. One federal estimate puts the aggregate value of their houses at close to $8 trillion.

In past generations, once the kids moved out, empty nesters began to downsize, either purchasing smaller houses or renting apartments. Boomers don’t seem to be in a rush to do either.

While bigger and more expensive housing is moving more quickly, it is at the lower end of the market – smaller and cheaper homes – that needs help. Where are the starter homes for younger adults? It could be a combination of developers focusing on homes with higher profit margins, millennials waiting longer to purchase homes, and older residents staying put longer. This not only affects different age groups; it also has an overall impact on the supply of affordable housing for anyone which is lacking in many major metropolitan regions.

So what kind of incentives would convince Baby Boomers to move?